Monday, June 21, 2010

In the Absence of Sound: Reflections on Proper 7, Year C

Preached June 20, 2010: 1 Kings 19:1-15a; Luke 8:26-39.

I did some of my training as a chaplain in a children’s hospital.  I had finished seminary and was looking for more education for ministry.  So, I decided to challenge myself, to try something that frightened me.  I thought about either a children’s hospital or a psychiatric hospital.  Frankly, I was a bit concerned that if I ever went into a psychiatric hospital a door would lock behind me and they wouldn’t let me out.  So, I opted for the children’s hospital.

Now, being in a children’s hospital will give you a somewhat different perspective on children than most folks have.  I didn’t have children then, and I learned a lot.  I learned that they weren’t as fragile as they seemed, at least to a young man who hadn’t yet had his own.  I learned that they could communicate in ways I hadn’t imagined.  And I learned to appreciate them when they were noisy.

See, when you work with sick children you come to appreciate it when they cry.  Oh, it’s not fun, either for you or for the child.  However, as distressing as it is to the child’s parents, crying is very reassuring to staff.  You see, you know one thing for certain about a crying child: you know that child is breathing.  When the child stops crying, you worry, and you check.  Sometimes the really critical information comes in the absence of sound.

Parents do learn this, although hopefully in less critical situations.  At the same time, it’s not just the stuff of sitcoms; it’s also something many of us have experienced: when children playing noisily suddenly become quiet, we suddenly become very concerned.  What are they into?  What’s going on?  Especially, what’s going on that they don’t want us to know about?  Again, sometimes the really critical information comes in the absence of sound.

We have two examples of that in the lessons today.  Look at Elijah.  At first we might think of Elijah as someone who likes a lot of drama and likes to make an impression.  Not long ago we heard about the long fast he called.  Just before this passage he had challenged the priests of Baal, the Canaanite god that Jezebel had brought to Samaria when she married Ahab.  Not only had he showed the impotence of the priests of Baal when the God of Israel lit his sacrifice, but he had been responsible for the deaths of four hundred of them.  Jezebel put out a contract on him.

At that point, all the attention seems to have lost its charm.  With God’s help, Elijah fled; first to points south, and the deep into the wilderness.  And there in the wilderness he encountered God.  He had hidden in a cave, and God called to him.  “Elijah, what are you doing here?”

“God, I’m done.  I did my best, but I’m the last one.  There’s not another left in Israel faithful to you, and they’re all turned against me.”

“Elijah,” God said, “I’m coming.  Come out to the face of the mountain.”

So, Elijah came out and waited inside the entrance to the cave.  And outside the cave, it was as if the world was coming apart.  First there was wind, wind so strong that it shattered the cliffs around him; but somehow he know God wasn’t in all that wind.  Then the very earth itself shook; but he knew God wasn’t in the earthquake.  Then there was fire, as if the heart of the earth had erupted; but he knew God wasn’t in the fire.  And then, after all that tumult, there was absence of sound.  And at that Elijah came out, because in that silence was God.  In that absence of sound, Elijah heard God, and told God why he had run so far and so fast.  And it was in that absence that Elijah heard God say, “There’s work for you to do, a message for you to bring.  It’s time for you to go.”

Or look at the Gospel lesson.  Jesus and the Twelve had just landed after crossing the Sea of Galilee.  This was foreign country to them.  This was Gentile territory, and rough territory at that.  In sight there was a herd of swine, and above them a rock bluff, pockmarked with cave tombs.  And no sooner had they beached the boat, when out of the rocks, out from among the tombs, came a man, filthy, naked, and screaming.  He was himself all noise and tumult.  He was possessed, oppressed by demons, and completely out of control.  Family and friends had tried to control him with iron chains, and he had simply broken them.  He dwelt among the dead, almost as if he were dead himself, and certainly as alone.

“What have you to do with me, Son of the Most High God?  Just your presence tortures me.”

“What is your name,” said Jesus.

“We are Legion,” came the voice; for he was oppressed not just by one demon, but by many.  “Please don’t send us back to Hell,” they said.  “Look, there’s a herd of pigs.  Send us to them.”  And no sooner had Jesus allowed the demons to possess the pigs, than the pigs. unable to bear the pain and confusion, stampeded into the lake and drowned.

Of course, this got a reaction from the swineherds.  They had seen the ravings of the man possessed, the screaming of the demons, and the squealing of the pigs.  They ran into town, probably screaming themselves.  But when they and the townspeople returned, all was quiet.  There was Jesus, and there was the man they knew; but he wasn’t raving and screaming.  He was sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed, and quiet, and sane.  This seems to have frightened the locals even more than all the noise; for they knew that there, in that absence of sound, there was God; and it can be a terrifying thing to encounter God.  And there in the quiet, after all the noise and tumult, the man heard Jesus say, “There’s work for you to do, a message for you to bring.  It’s time for you to go.”

Sometimes our lives can become overloaded with noise and tumult.  We are surrounded by needs and demands, and by calls for our attention.  There are television shows – indeed there are entire television channels – that seem to be nothing but noise.  All that noise can overwhelm us.  It can leave us feeling powerless and alone.

That’s when it’s time to stop.  It’s time to listen – to leave the noise and listen: listen to the absence of sound.  It’s in the absence of sound that God is can speak to us, and that we can hear.

There are a number of ways we can do that.  That’s why some of us take retreats.  Some of us can find that in saying the Offices at home.  Some can even find that in the Sunday Eucharist.

But one way or another, we need to find that space when we can hear the absence of sound.  For it’s in that absence of sound that God can speak to us, and we can hear – and perhaps even hear God say, “There’s work for you to do, a message for you to bring.  It’s time for you to go.”

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